I probably chose today’s woman for two personal reasons. The first is that I spent 35 years teaching elementary students, just like she did. The second is because of my love of basketball, which she also had. I remember Grace AsBerry Jones. When I was playing basketball at Wilson, she occasionally refereed our games. She was one of those referees that you didn’t even raise an eyebrow to, let alone your voice! She was tough, but fair. It wasn’t until much later that I learned of her struggles to overcome racial discrimination and her outstanding commitment to the education of children.
Grace was born in West Reading. She was one of seven children and attended Tyson Shoener Elementary School, Southwest Junior High School and Reading High School, graduating with Merit in 1954. She was accepted and planned on attending one of the State Teachers’ Colleges for Health and Physical Education, but because she was an African American, she was not permitted to live in its dormitories. During this era, college students majoring in education were required to pass swimming tests. At her first choice of schools, Grace would not have been allowed to swim in the college’s pool facilities, but would have had to swim at the YMCA for African Americans. She decided to matriculate at East Stroudsburg, where racial discrimination was not such a problem.
Grace played field hockey and basketball while at East Stroudsburg where she was captain and leading scorer of her field hockey team as a senior. Grace was named to the All Collegiate field hockey team three of the four years she played. She started at guard on the basketball team where her nickname was “the Rock of Gibraltar” for her defensive prowess. She became the first African American to be inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame at East Stroudsburg.
When Grace graduated, she applied to and became the first African American teacher under contract in the Reading School District. After earning her Master’s Degree from Temple University in Guidance, Grace also became the first African American guidance counselor in the Reading School District. In approximately 1968, she became principal at the Lauer’s Park Elementary School, marking the first time in ninety years that the Reading School District hired an African American to this position. She also served as Principal at Amanda Stoudt Elementary and 13th and Union Elementary. While at Amanda Stoudt, her work in early childhood education was rewarded by several grants being awarded to the Reading District. Her efforts brought national recognition to the Reading Schools in 1993. That year she received the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Image Award and the Bethel A.M.E. Service to Mankind Award. It must have been quite a thrill for her to receive the Key to the City of Reading and to have February 20th of 1993 named as Grace AsBerry Jones Day!
Even after her retirement from teaching she remained active especially in her interest in children and education. She was an assistant Sunday School teacher at Zion Baptist Church, she was an adjunct professor at Albright where she supervised student teachers in elementary education, and she was a guest lecturer at Kutztown and Temple Universities. Grace was involved in the Reading Senior High School Alumni Association and started a chapter of the East Stroudsburg University’s Alumni Association in Berks County. She gave the winter commencement address at ESU in 2003, about a year before her death in 2004. How lucky are the hundreds of Reading children who were influenced by her teaching, counseling and leadership as school principal! Grace must have endured great scrutiny throughout her teaching career, with being the first person to overcome racial barriers in the Reading School District. We educators should be very proud of the exemplary life of service that she lived.
Hallie Vaughan is a Women’s History enthusiast, instructor and reinactor and longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center. As a guest blogger Hallie will focus on Women’s History in Berks County.
Mystery Woman of the Week #5
I painted persimmon colored poppies, calla lilies and cow skulls. Even with failing eyesight I waited and sculpted until my death at age 98. Who am I?
Mystery Woman Answer #4
Julia Ward Howe